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Evan Davis on... language

Updated Friday, 6th November 2009

The Bottom Line’s Evan Davis looks into the future of language and how technology could transform worldwide business.

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I’m not much of a linguist so maybe I have an interest in what I’m about to say. But there are two ways of thinking about language and technology. Optimists, particularly if you’re like me, will say hopefully technology will, I mean we don’t have to learn languages, we’ll have automatic translation devices that just mean we don’t have to learn what other people understand and say because we can just turn on the little device that’ll translate it all for us. Preferably something we can implant into our brains, what a lot of trouble that would save! And the kind of logic that defends that argument says just go on Google, you download a foreign web page, hit the translate key, and you get a passable translation that allows you to get on without ever having spoken a word of Spanish or Chinese or whatever it is. But there’s an opposite view about technology and language. It’s that as technology progresses, the advantages, the competitive advantages of organisations will be those that more subtly appreciate the difference between cultures and the way people work.

So a good case in point is the search engine. If I’m running a company, and I have fantastic search words, I do really well when people search for me in an English website, I can’t just translate those words and put them into a foreign website for foreign speakers because they may not search in quite the same way as the English people. So it might be that a translation of the words you would be using for an English search will be different to the translation you’ll use for the foreign search. In which case the competitive advantage goes not to the person using the digital translation mechanism, it goes to the one who truly speaks many languages and understands many languages and understands and uses language as a way into the culture of different jurisdictions and different markets. And if that’s the case it says that what technology will mean is it’ll put more of a premium on the deeper understanding of what other people say, do, communicate and how they think, and that will put more of a premium on language skills rather than less of a premium.

That’s my opinion. You can join the debate with the Open University.





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